By Khaled Saffuri, President at the National Interest Foundation
A decade ago, corrupt Tunisian police repeatedly harassed a 26-year-old street vendor and confiscated his goods. In response, he burned himself alive, triggering demonstrations which brought down the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Pressure for reform spread across the Middle East and the much-celebrated Arab Spring was born.
Unfortunately, little remains of the once pervasive demand for political change. The Gulf Kingdoms largely bought off their populations, mixing increased subsidies and repression. Democracy triumphed in Egypt, only to be replaced by a dictatorship more brutal than before. Syria and Libya descended into civil war, which became another of Dante’s circles of hell.
Through everything, Tunisia and its democratic experiment survived. The country provided a dramatic example of freedom that inspired a region mostly known for corruption and oppression. Equally important, Tunisia was an Islamic country which chose inclusive democracy: everyone committed to peaceful development was welcome in the political process.
Until now. “The hard-won freedoms and human rights gains of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising are at risk,” warned Amnesty International’s Heba Morayef.
Even though Tunisia did far better than its neighbors, progress remained difficult. The economy was stagnant, institutions were fragile, and challenges were many as the government came under pressure. Like its neighbors, Tunisia was challenged by the rapid spread of COVID-19. In recent weeks, angry crowds took to the streets in frustration.
However, this was a sign of strength, not weakness. In a region where cruel dictatorship rules, Tunisians remained free to criticize their government.
Yet last week President Kais Saied staged a coup, or something very close to one. He dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and several cabinet members, seized executive power, deployed army troops to close parliament, banned public gatherings, and arrested a critical member of parliament. The president claimed the public prosecutor’s authority while ending legislators’ immunity. He also targeted the media, closing the Al Jazeera bureau in the capital of Tunis. Saied was anything but conciliatory after suspending democratic rule: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.”
Observers dismissed Saied’s claim to be acting under the constitution. The law required “imminent danger to the country’s institutions,” which was absent, as well as consultation with other political leaders, which did not occur. Columbia University’s Safwan M. Masri warned: “An optimistic scenario would be that the parliament and the constitution and democratic institutions would prevail and that he would be forced out of office. But I would not bet any money on it.”
Popular frustration with the government resulted in some public support for his move. However, Saied’s commitment to democracy long has been suspect. Posing as an outsider and populist, he warred against other elected officials, most importantly Mechichi and parliament’s speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi. Indeed, Saied, whose power under the constitution is limited, blocked creation of the constitutional court and failed to swear in cabinet ministers.
Now, warned Morayef: “The concentration of powers in the hands of the executive branch is alarming.” Yet Saied intends to amend the constitution to seize more authority.
Saied is following the path of many a strongman. For instance, Egypt’s general turned politician Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew a much-criticized elected president, only to establish a dictatorship far worse than any which came before. Making Saied’s power grab particularly ominous is the backing from outside powers, most notably Egypt as well as the United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They are among the region’s most repressive nations.
Indeed, the UAE and KSA routinely intervene in other nations to suppress democracy. For instance, they helped Bahrain crush democracy protests growing out of the Arab Spring. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh essentially paid for al-Sisi’s coup. Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh observed: “Tunisia’s President Kais Saied may not wear military fatigues, but he’s doing a pretty good Sisi impression nonetheless.” The two governments also have been applying pressure on Kuwait—the freest Gulf country—to dispense with its important democratic freedoms, including an elected national assembly and relatively free press.
The Saudi/Emirati campaign against the region’s most democratic Arab state is extensive and sophisticated. Elham Fakhro of the International Crisis Group cited similarities in the Saudi and Emirati media’s treatment of al-Sisi’s 2013 coup and Saied’s takeover. Moreover, reported the Washington Post: “Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, said he has seen evidence of what appears to be manipulation campaigns on Twitter, led in large part by Saudi and Emirati influences.”
The immediate test for Saied is restoring democratic governance. Parliaments should be replaced via elections, not coups. He should restore the existing parliament. If not, he must fulfill his promise to hold early elections—quickly and fairly.
So far, the U.S. has done little. The State Department issued a toothless statement insisting that “Tunisia must not squander its democratic gains,” which it already had done. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saied to urge him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights,” which the latter already had violated.
The Biden administration must decide whether it is serious about supporting democracy. Then-Vice President Joe Biden hosted then-President Beji Caid Essebsi and said that he “underscored the importance the United States places on ensuring that democracy succeeds in Tunisia.” Candidate Joe Biden promised a change from the Trump administration, which appeared to glory in the brutality of allied states.
The administration should insist that Saied restore democracy and pursue political change within the democratic process. Washington officials should announce that otherwise, aid will be withheld and sanctions will be imposed.
Equally important is ending the Saudi and Emirati campaign to impose brutal repression on Arab peoples yearning to be free. Targeting moderate Islamic parties and peoples is especially counterproductive, since doing so radicalizes those seeking democracy. The extremism that naturally results is terrorism as well as tyranny.
The administration should confront the Egyptian, Saudi, and Emirati governments. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called for an investigation into their role, but that is not enough. While the U.S. cannot dictate their internal political systems, it should insist that they stop promoting dictatorship abroad.
Tunisia is a moment both vulnerable and vital. A restoration of democracy is still possible. If Saied is allowed to proceed, the path back will be far more difficult. And the U.S. will face an even less stable and more dangerous Middle East.